The dry lands

29th September 2016


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Jean Curran

Is drought contributing to conflict? the environmentalist investigates

When Prince Charles told Sky News in an interview at the end of last year that climate change was partly responsible for the civil war in Syria, which was fuelling mass migration into Europe, some in the media condemned his comments.

‘There’s very good evidence indeed that one of the major reasons for this horror in Syria … was a drought that lasted for about five or six years, which meant that huge numbers of people had to leave the land but increasingly they came into the cities,’ the heir to the throne said.

Despite the press ridicule, which had also been heaped on singer Charlotte Church when she made a similar observation, there is evidence that the drought was a contributory factor in the uprising against President Assad – alongside escalating prices for basic commodities and the regime’s cancellation in 2009 of subsidies to farmers for diesel and fertiliser, which prompted mass migration to Syria’s already over-stretched cities and towns. With climate change likely to make drought and other extreme weather events more common in many parts of the world will it help fuel conflict elsewhere?

Corroborative evidence

Around 1.5 million people fled north-east Syria due to the effects of Assad’s economic policies and the drought that gripped the country between 2007 and 2010. Syria was only one county affected by lack of rain. The drought affected the entire Fertile Crescent, which spans parts of Turkey, Iraq and Jordan as well as Egypt. Most of those who left were farmers and herders, many moving to urban areas in search of food and work. At the same time, refugees from neighbouring Iraq crossed into Syria. Between 2002 and 2010 the population of many towns and cities in the country increased by around 50%. The uprising against the Assad regime started in March 2011.

A study published in the Proceedings on the National Academy (PNAS) in March 2015 concluded that the drought was largely the result of climate change. Researchers at the universities of California and Columbia found that it was the worst drought on record and had caused widespread crop failure and the mass migration of farming families to urban centres. ‘Century-long observed trends in precipitation, temperature, and sea-level pressure, supported by climate model results, strongly suggest that anthropogenic forcing has increased the probability of severe and persistent droughts in this region, and made the occurrence of a three-year drought as severe as that of 2007–10 two to three times more likely than by natural variability alone,’ they said.

The researchers said global warming had two effects: it appears to have indirectly weakened wind patterns that bring rain from the Mediterranean, reducing precipitation during the usual November–April wet season; and higher temperatures had increased evaporation of moisture from soils during the usually hot summers. Although there had been substantial droughts in the area in the 1950s, 1980s and 1990s, the most recent one was easily the worst and longest since reliable recordkeeping began.

The study explained that the drought’s effects were immediate: ‘Agricultural production, typically a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, plummeted by a third. In the hard-hit North East, livestock herds were practically obliterated; cereal prices doubled; and nutrition-related diseases among children saw dramatic increases.’

‘We’re not saying the drought caused the war,’ says Richard Seager , a climate scientist at Columbia University and co-author of the study. ‘We’re saying that, added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.’

Professor Sam Fankhauser, co-director of the Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, has urged caution on linking the conflict in Syria to climate change. Launching a report in October 2015 highlighting the need for the UN and its refugee agency, the UNHCR, to define the legal status of environmental migrants, he said: ‘Some researchers have suggested that there may be a link between climate change, the record drought that took place in Syria, the conflict and hence the refugee crisis in Europe. But it is very difficult to quantify what the contribution of climate change has been. What is clear is the potential for climate change to affect factors, such as the supply of food and water, which can drive migration.’

That study looked at six semi-arid countries – Burkina Faso, Senegal, Kenya, Tanzania, Pakistan and Tajikistan – and found that people were most likely to respond to impacts of climate change by migrating within their country of origin rather than migrating internationally.

Robert McLeman, associate professor and environmental studies academic adviser at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, also says drought alone is not sufficient to explain forced migration and that other reasons, such as violence, political unrest and food shortages, are responsible too. He told the World Water Week event in Stockholm last month: ‘Migration due to drought is not something that happens suddenly. It is a long process with several steps of adaptation to a changing situation before we meet a tipping point.’

Changing world

Although climate change is considered just one of a host of factors that can trigger conflict and migration, its impacts are growing. The UNHCR has warned that it faces enormous consequences from climate change: ‘Scarce natural resources such as drinking water are likely to become even more limited. Many crops and some livestock are unlikely to survive in certain locations if conditions become too hot and dry, or too cold and wet. Food security, already a significant concern, will become even more challenging. People will have to try [to] adapt to this situation, but for many this will mean a conscious move to another place to survive.’

A 2015 report from the US defence department (DoD) concluded that global climate change would aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in many countries. Of Syria, the report said the large movements of rural dwellers and Iraqi refugees to cities had overwhelmed institutional capacity to respond constructively to the changing service demands.

The DoD also revealed that its Africa command had identified humanitarian crisis as the most likely climate-related risk within its area of responsibility. It detailed the impact that devastating events such as drought and disease could have on vulnerable populations and on state stability in places already struggling with fragility and conflict.

It pointed out the US national security strategy states that climate change was an urgent and growing threat, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water. These impacts were already occurring and their scope, scale and intensity were projected to increase over time. The report stated: ‘Climate-induced stress can generate new vulnerabilities – for example, water scarcity – and thus contribute to instability and conflict even in situations not previously considered at risk.’

The Asian Development Bank reported in August that Asia and the Pacific remained the world’s most vulnerable region to water insecurity and could not sustain its recent economic growth without addressing this issue. Although several countries, including China, have taken measures since the bank’s 2013 study to improve water security, recent estimates suggest that by 2050 3.4 billion people could be living in water-stressed areas in the region, while water demand will increase by 55%.

Elsewhere, including in more economically developed countries, water stress is becoming an issue. California, the world’s eighth largest economy, has been in drought since 2012, and the conditions worsened considerably in the winter of 2013–14. Last year, California governor Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency after the driest year on record. He also introduced the first state-wide mandatory water reduction measures, requiring cities and towns to cut consumption by 25% over nine months. Although the drought in the first half of 2016 was less severe, in June Brown ordered the state to adopt permanent water conservation measures, including long-term bans on wasteful practices and mandatory reporting rules. He said: ‘Californians stepped up during this drought and saved more water than ever before. But now we know that drought is becoming a regular occurrence and water conservation must be a part of our everyday life.’

At the end of August, the US drought monitor estimated that almost 35% of the state was in drought, ranging from moderate to exceptional. Across the western states more than 42 million people were living in drought areas.

In 2011, parts of Europe experienced their worst drought for years, with rainfall up to 40% below normal. Droughts in Europe are likely to increase, according to the findings of the European Commission’s PESETA II project, published in 2014. These concluded that EU cropland affected by droughts would increase sevenfold by the 2080s, reaching 700,000 sqkm a year, almost twice the area of Germany. The largest increase would be in southern Europe, reaching almost 60% of the total EU affected area, compared with 30% today. The number of people affected would also rise by a factor of seven compared with current numbers, reaching 153 million a year. Water UK recently reported that droughts in parts of England are predicted to be longer, and more frequent and acute than previously thought.

It’s enough

Climate change is likely to increase water demand and reduce supply, in some cases exacerbating competition for already scarce resources and forcing up prices for food and goods. In some cases, conflict and migration may be the outcome, particularly where there is already political unrest or tension among ethnic groups.

McLeman noted in his Stockholm talk that 54% of international refugees were originating from three countries – Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan. Each has recent history of severe drought and political instability.

The PNAS study includes the words of one displaced Syrian farmer: ‘The drought and unemployment were important in pushing people toward revolution. When the drought happened, we could handle it for two years, and then we said, “it’s enough”.’

Corporate response

The business community is increasingly aware that water stress can threaten operations, so many firms are working to reduce consumption and help communities manage scarce resources. Of the 405 companies providing information to the CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) for its 2015 water risks report, almost two-thirds reported exposure to water risk, with financial impacts in 2015 totalling more than $2.5bn. It highlighted the case of Portuguese utility EDP, which in June 2015 warned investors that the impact of drought on its hydropower plants in Brazil could amount to between $165m and $219m.

The CDP also noted the forecast from the Water Resources Group that by 2030 demand for water would grow by 53% to 40% above current accessible and reliable supplies. Cate Lamb, head of water at CDP, said: ‘Just as oil was to the 20th century, water is fast becoming the defining resource of the 21st century. Unfortunately, unlike oil there is no replacement.’

Case study I: Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola announced in August that it had met its 2020 water replenishment target five years early. The soft drinks firm had set the goal in 2007 and required it to safely return to communities and nature an amount of water equal to what it used in finished beverages. The company said that, in 2015, it had returned an estimated 192 billion litres through community water projects. This is equivalent to 115% of the water used at its plants.

According to an independent progress report by water consultancy LimnoTech, verified by Deloitte, Coca-Cola increased water replenishment by almost 38.5 million litres compared with 2014; reduced annual sediment loads by 2.66 million tonnes; cut the release of pollutants, such as nutrients and pathogens, by 88 tonnes; and provided almost 1.5 million people will full access to clean water.

As part of its water strategy, Coca-Cola requires each of its 863 plants worldwide to determine the sustainability of the supply they share with others in terms of quality and quantity, and issues such as infrastructure to treat and distribute water.

Coca-Cola’s water replenishment plan came after controversy over its use of water in India. In a blog posted online in August, the firm’s chair and chief executive officer, Muhtar Kent, described this as a ‘wake-up’ call. ‘Twelve years ago, our business was accused of misusing water in India during a time of drought,’ he wrote. ‘While we were ultimately found to be acting within the law and using our own water supplies, we suffered plant closures and our reputation was damaged. Some consumers walked away from our brands. Looking back, this was a difficult but important learning experience for us. The impact we felt went well beyond India. Back then, we were focused on water use inside our operations, but it wasn’t enough.’

Corporate response

Case study II: Olam International

Olam is the first global agri-business to have a site in Africa that has achieved the Alliance for Water Stewardship Standard, which was secured this year for its Aviv Coffee Plantation in southern Tanzania. The standard defines stewardship criteria and indicators for how water should be managed at a site and catchment level in a way that is environmentally, socially and economically beneficial. Achieving it for the 1,025 hectare coffee plantation should help ensure water security for the 300,000 people living in the surrounding Ruvuma River Basin.

‘The river is the lifeblood of the whole region, so in developing the plantation we had to take care to ensure that our irrigation needs do not impact adversely on its ecosystem and the other water users,’ says local environmental and social manager Jeremy Dufour. ‘But, with climate change an increasing threat, we must ensure that our use in years to come does not upset the balance.’

The success in Tanzania has spurred Olam to pilot the standard at its onion drying plant in Firebaugh, California, with WWF and Ecolab. It is also exploring rolling it out to its other processing facilities. The standard provides water stewards with a six-step continual improvement framework that enables sites to commit to, understand, plan, implement, evaluate and communicate water stewardship actions.

‘Olam has operations in 70 countries, so we have a responsibility to focus on improved water efficiency,’ says head of environment Chris Brown. ‘We are pleased that we have already met our 2020 target to reduce water use by 10% per tonne of product in our farms and plantations (publicly reported under the UN CEO Water Mandate) but we recognise we have further to go across our processing.’


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